Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
Good looking, sociable people don’t make good scientists, according to popular stereotypes.
This is one of the findings of an interesting new study of how scientists are perceived, from British researchers Ana I. Gheorghiu and colleagues.
Gheorghiu et al. took 616 pictures of scientists, which they downloaded from the faculty pages at various universities. They gave the portraits to two sets of raters. The first group were asked to rate the attractiveness of the portraits and to say whether they appeared competent, intelligent, etc. A second set of raters were asked whether they thought the person pictured was a good scientist.
This figure shows which variables predicted “good scientist” judgments:
The strongest predictor of being seen as a good scientist was perceived competence, but the second-strongest was attractiveness and it was negatively associated with perceived scientific aptitude. This is a striking result, given that people generally view attractive people as having favourable characteristics.
So what can explain this ‘ugly Einstein’ effect? Gheorghiu et al. have little to say about it. They remark that “the stereotypical scientist may be an impartial truth seeker with limited personal appeal”, but I’ve been thinking about this, and I wonder if these results reflect a deeper phenomenon: a kind of cultural Cartesian dualism.
In terms of popular stereotypes, it seems that you can either be strong and beautiful in body, or be brilliant in mind, but not both. Think of some “good body” stereotypes – athletes, jocks, models, bodybuilders, blondes. Most of them are, stereotypically, unintelligent. Think of how the big, muscular villains in videogames and movies also tend to be the stupid ones.
“Good mind” stereotypes, on the other hand, tend to be unattractive and unathletic: think of the nerd (either overweight or too skinny), the professor (old, physically frail), the wizard in fantasy tropes (low strength and stamina). Intellectual strength and physical weakness seem to go naturally together.
All is not lost for aesthetically-pleasing scientists, however. While they may be perceived as being less able, Gheorghiu et al. also found that attractiveness was a strong, positive predictor of whether scientists were seen as interesting:
Gheorghiu AI, Callan MJ, & Skylark WJ (2017). Facial appearance affects science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 28533389